North Coast 500 Adventure – Part 1

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Loch Lomond (in the rain)

Our first road trip for quite a while, and top of my bucket list, the North Coast 500 (NC500) is marketed as Scotland’s answer to US Route 66. Roughly 500 miles long, it starts and finishes in Inverness, and pretty much follows the coast road around Northern Scotland. Planned as a holiday rather than a photo trip, there was obviously going to be lots of photo opportunities, but not much time for considered and contemplative photography – right from the outset I figured it was going to be pretty much snapshots only. So, no filter systems, just my Olympus E-M1ii camera and 12-100mm ‘superzoom’ lens, and a Pen-F and 17mm as ‘backup’.

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Glenfinnan

Starting from home in Shropshire added another 250 miles each way to the start point, so it was more like a NC1000 for us! It all started in rather damp fashion, with a grim drive in the rain through the M6 roadworks in Cheshire. Fortunately the rain eased off after that and we got to our first overnight stop on Loch Lomond without incident, although the rain made another appearance. Staying in the excellent Lodge on Loch Lomond overnight, with the added bonus of a sauna in our (upgraded) room set us up for what turned out to be an eventful second day.

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Ferry Crossing

It started well enough, with a steady drive up through beautiful Glencoe, followed by a brief stop in Fort William to take in an exhibition of Scottish Landscape Photography.  All good stuff.  Then the plan unravelled – the swing bridge at Spean Bridge on the A82 had jammed in the open position, totally blocking the route northbound.  Rather than waiting until it was hopefully fixed, or taking a 90 mile diversion, we opted to cut across to Mallaig via Glennfinnan, and take the ferry to Skye, before crossing back to the mainland and working along the coast.  We had an anxious hour’s wait as the ferry was fully booked and we had to go standby!  Fortunately they squeezed us on, and we had a bracing 35 min journey across The Sound of Sleat to Ammandale, incidentally pretty much the only way to Skye before the Skye Bridge was opened in 1995. Not so lucky were the dozen or so cars in the queue behind us – they had wait for the next ferry 2 hours later… So it was then a straight drive to Broadford, and across the Skye bridge to pick up our original planned route – we were on Skye for just 25 minutes!

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The Torridon Hotel

After a further couple of hours driving on fairly twisty and narrow (sometimes single track) roads, it was a relief to get to our hotel in Torridon – straight into the bar for a well deserved gin and tonic! A decent enough gin selection, but nothing compared to the almost 400 whiskies on offer! A beautiful hotel, albeit at the top of our budget, but so full of Scottish style and charm.

Up bright and early next morning (more sunshine too!) for our first ‘serious’ part of the NC500 – the Applecross Peninsular, and the infamous Bealach Na Ba pass through the mountains.  Reaching just over 2000ft at its highest point, this is not a road for the faint-hearted, or for camper vans – one section is very narrow indeed, with a gradient of 1 in 4, a series of hairpin bends, and

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Start of Bealach Na Ba

very steep drops just beyond the crash barriers! However, the views are simply amazing, looking out across the hills towards Loch Carron in the south, and Skye and its outlying islands to the west. After a brief stop at the summit viewpoint to take in the vista, it was all the way down again into the quaint little village of Applecross with its beautiful, if rather stony beach.  A quick lunch at the excellent Applecross Inn and we were off again, along the coast road back towards Shieldaig.  More amazing scenery as we tracked along the coast – mountains to our right, and sea to the left, with Skye and its islands of Rassay and Rona in the distance. With so much to see, and so many places to stop off and admire the views, it took us a good couple of hours to make the return journey to the hotel.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAn amazing day, and one that completely surpassed our expectations. Roll on tomorrow, and Part 2!

Landscape Lessons….

Elgol Beach, Skye

Taken from a similar spot to Joe Cornish’s iconic photo.

Last week’s holiday on the Isle of Skye was a delight, and one of the standouts for me was the ‘photo day’ I had with Russell Sherwood (see link below).  Russell is a local professional photographer, has a fine art photo gallery and runs individual and group workshops and courses. I wanted someone to show me the best sights on Skye for photos, and felt that I could pick up some tips on how to take better photographs. In particular I reckoned that I wasn’t getting as many truly sharp images as I thought I should.

My very reasonably priced one-to-one day with Russell was certainly full-on – we covered a lot of ground (Skye is a big island!) and walked and carried gear across a lot of rocky paths and beaches, but I got some photos I am delighted with. I definitely picked up some useful pointers, and figured out how to get much better and sharper photos – here are a few of the ‘lessons’ from the day.

#1.  Don’t try and cover too much ground. Stay in one place until you have the shot you want, or exhausted the possibilities there – wait and get the best shot possible rather than rush off to the next location.

#2. Stability is everything. Use a tripod big enough for the job – my Manfrotto 190 was struggling in the wind, and wasn’t really tall enough for some shots. A tripod head that is easy to level is a great help – either a good ball & socket head or a geared head. Use a remote release and self timer – this ensures the camera doesn’t move at the point of taking the photo. I’ve been guilty of not using the remote release, thinking I could ‘squeeze’ the shutter without moving the camera.

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#3.  Get the exposure right in camera. Although its easy to adjust exposure and contrast on the computer back at base, its so much better to get the image right in the camera – it gives you so much more to work with.  Key points are – use graduated filters to even out extremes of brightness across the shot if possible, and always check the histogram when taking the shot to ensure highlights in particular are not burnt out (shadows can usually be brightened, but if the highlights have gone, there is not much that can be done.)

#4.  Don’t overdo long exposures.  The trend nowadays to to use a ‘Big Stopper’ type extreme neutral density filter to give a long exposure to blur water and skies. There’s a real danger this is just a fad, and its certainly overdone! Best to try less extreme exposures as well.

#5. Don’t try and change lenses mid-stream. Literally! Depends on location, but switching lenses while on location can be a nightmare – consider the obvious risk of dropping gear while you are standing on a cliff edge or in a stream, and the possibility of getting dust or spray on the sensor. Either use a zoom lens to adjust field of view if its not feasible to change position, or even just set up two camera bodies as they are generally easier to change over.

So as well as picking up on the technique points above, I have a new heavier duty tripod and head on order, a ‘Little Stopper’ filter for less extreme long exposures, and a new larger camera bag to make it easier to work with all the paraphenalia when out. I’m sorely tempted by the Fuji 10-24mm zoom lens, but this is physically much bigger and heavier than the gear I have now, and will mean swapping out all my lovely neat little Lee Seven5 filters for the very much larger and heavier 100mm versions!

Russell can be found at http://skyescapegallery.zenfolio.com

Here are a few more of my favourites from what was a brilliant day out! 

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